LaKrystal Coats is one step closer to her day in court and having a jury decide whether jailers violated her late husband’s rights.
An order filed in federal court last week sets the framework for Coats’ lawsuit against the officers who came in contact with Demetric Cowan in his last moments.
Demetric Cowan was arrested by Greenwood police and booked at the county jail the night of March 12, 2016, on charges of drug possession and resisting arrest. Early the following morning, he began to show signs of deterioration, including vomiting, crawling on the floor and having what appeared to be a seizure.
It wasn’t until about 45 minutes after Cowan’s behavior changed that detention officers called for EMS. By the time medical aid arrived, he was already dead. An autopsy and toxicology would show Cowan died of cocaine toxicity from having swallowed a bag of cocaine at some point.
Coats filed a lawsuit alleging Cowan’s death was caused by neglect and violations of his rights, serving nine officers in August 2016 including Greenwood Police Chief Gerald Brooks and then-Sheriff Tony Davis.
On Feb. 7, attorneys for the defendants asked a judge to rule on the case without taking it to trial. In the motions filed on behalf of the defendants, their attorneys wrote that officers weren’t made aware Cowan needed or wanted medical attention and that officers had no knowledge Cowan had consumed a bag of cocaine.
Coats’ attorney, Charles Grose, wrote in a March 7 response that Cowan told officers he was choking during his arrest, threw up in his holding cell in jail, had difficulty communicating, was unable to stand, was unresponsive to officers’ questions and had an obvious seizure.
On July 3, U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges filed a report recommending the U.S. district court grant the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, meaning a judge would decide the case without it going before a jury. On Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten filed an order having reviewed Hodges’ recommendations and ruled on each motion separately.
For the arresting officers, Wooten wrote that summary judgment was appropriate because there was no evidence implying these officers knew Cowan had swallowed a bag of cocaine, or that he needed medical attention. The arresting officers included Ray Pope, Steven Nichols, Daniel Cardarelli and Brandon White.
“Arresting Officers searched Cowan’s mouth but found nothing to indicate that he had swallowed any drugs,” Wooten wrote. “Importantly, it is undisputed that Cowan did not inform Arresting Officers that he swallowed a bag of drugs at any time.”
As for the police chief and sheriff, who were being sued in their official capacities as department heads, Wooten said the Eleventh Amendment protects Davis and since the court is dismissing the federal claims against the arresting officers, so too will it decline the claims against the police department.
The court grants summary judgment for the three detention officers who are defendants in this case when it comes to claims their actions violated state law.
Wooten said the court accepts Hodges’ analysis that there isn’t evidence to support an allegation that the officers’ actions were extreme and outrageous with the intent of causing or reckless disregard of the chance to cause pain and suffering.
However, Wooten said there is a question for a jury to answer in this case — whether the detention officers addressed Cowan’s symptoms in a reasonable time frame. Wooten denied summary judgment here, saying Coats presented a claim the court can deal with based on how obvious Cowan’s seizure symptoms were.
Sidney Montgomery, Pamela Osborne and Roy Murray were the three detention officers who came in contact with Cowan during his stay. When Cowan had what was described as a seizure, Montgomery told him to “stop faking it.” Montgomery said in deposition that the jail’s policy was to isolate any inmates suspected of detoxing, advise the lieutenant of what’s happening and put a watch on the inmate.
“Officers did not activate emergency medical services until 4:13 AM, approximately thirty minutes after placing Cowan in an observation cell, and Sergeant Montgomery contacted his lieutenant at 4:15 AM after EMS was called,” Wooten said in the order. “No one attempted to determine whether Cowan was faking the seizures, nor did officers attempt to administer CPR to Cowan when they lost his pulse.”
With this denial, the question of the detention officers’ response to Cowan’s condition will move forward toward a jury trial. The parties were ordered to try and mediate the case within 45 days of the order. If not resolved, attorneys will appear for a pretrial conference at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 14, when the court will set a date for jury selection and a trial.